Climate Justice and Youth Engagement

Climate Justice and Youth Engagement

By: Elly Frye, Regis University, Class of 2019

Many people acknowledge that the fight against corporate neoliberalism is a long one, and will likely span generations (Gordon & Webber, 2008). Likewise, more and more youth in Latin America are working in gold mines and other areas hazardous to the natural environment and their health (Heemskerk, 2003). Despite this, activist organizations and NGOs are still giving little attention to engaging youth in communities facing issues of resource extraction.

Where are Youth Most Active?

Planeta Oceana, a non-profit in Peru dedicated to marine conservancy and community empowerment, sees the unique role that youth plays in sustainability and development. Planeta Oceana starts youth as volunteers, providing education and opportunities to become environmental justice leaders in their communities. As they solidify their engagement with the organization, youth are taught to do their own research, work with key stakeholders, and design and build their own initiatives based on the issues they face in their own community. As of May 2017, over 400 youth have played a role in a variety of initiatives relative to their situation, and over 500,000 people have been reached by their work (Forsberg, 2017).

Organizations like Planeta Oceana represent a growing trend in environmental justice organizations. In the United States, Earth Guardians focuses solely on harnessing the potential in young populations to address varying issues related to human rights and environmental issues. Like Planeta Oceana, Earth Guardians understands the importance of giving youth leadership roles, allowing them to take charge rather than just observe the adults in the room.

What about elsewhere? Generally, it is easier to find information about youth-led initiatives and organizations that empower young communities stemming from the US and Northern America. This represents the limitations of language barriers and the inadequacy of connections between Northern America and Latin America. Countries like Chile, Columbia, and Guatemala are all still facing rampant issues with gold mining Junior Firms (Dougherty, 2011), and these corporations (mostly stemming from Canada and the US), are only strengthened by the lack of connection between US and Latin American activist organizations.

How to Best Engage Youth?

 The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) takes a formal approach to youth engagement. Their Youth Engagement Continuum methodically advances youth engagement to “increase level of community involvement, impact, trust, and communication flow.”

This model is used to inform a collaborative approach to youth engagement between the organization and the young people. With this model, organizations can work with what youth gives them, and allow them to become innovators and builders on their own.

Hal Rhoades, the Regional Coordinator for Northern Europe at Yes to Life, No to Mining (YNLM), sees this as a pertinent way to effectively engage youth. According to Rhoades, “ I believe it is essential that efforts to engage youth are a) forward-looking, and b) meet Youth ‘where they are’.” At YLNM, youth engagement is supported by bridging the gap between Indigenous elders’ knowledge and the ways of life of young people. The emphasis here is much like the model utilized by CDPHE, where youth transition into local issues by being taught and appraised for the knowledge and talents that are unique to their generation and context in the world. At the Gaia Foundation, where Rhoades started his work, this is an essential aspect of their efforts to employ youth. According to Rhoades, “We support youth to teach each other, through a methodology known as participatory video- how to competently and reliably use technology like video cameras or mobile phones to record their elders and their knowledge, directing technological skills toward collective goals that span generations in the community. In this way, youth learn more about their culture by osmosis, while elders, seeing youth re-engaging with the community and their ancestral knowledge, often become more complementary about the youth, giving them positive affirmation.”

This approach is not just supported by theoretical models and expert opinion, but also by the experience of youth themselves. Marlow Baines, the Global Crew Director at Earth Guardians,  started working in environmental justice issues when she was 14. Now 17, Marlow is a leader in a global organization, where her activism spans 250 crews across the world to engage youth to be active leaders.

On her own experience, Marlow emphasized the profound impact Earth Guardians has on her life. She was motivated to apply for the National Council after seeing how Earth Guardians encouraged youth to be their “authentic selves” in their fight for environmental justice. This echoed a sentiment Rhoades shared in our interview where he claimed that allowing space for youth to “express themselves” gives room for creative leadership and collaboration that many organizations seeking to engage youth in fail to understand.

 Why is Engaging Youth Important?

 Rhoades sees youth as providing a bridge for intergenerational knowledge creating innovative, adaptable solutions to our growing climate and justice concerns.

Marlow sees it this way: “Youth have a unique way of saying it like it is. I really feel like adults can be pessimistic and “realists” when we don’t have time for that, anymore. Youth have grown up in the environmental crisis. We have watched some of our favorite places get impacted by climate change, so it’s really easy for us to connect with the issues and therefore, continue to fight for a more just and sustainable world.”

We need our active communities and organizations to prioritize youth engagement. Without it, we are at risk of losing the cultural experiences and knowledge that continues to hold us together.


  1. Dougherty, M. L. (2011). The Global Gold Mining Industry, Junior Firms, and Civil Society Resistance in Guatemala. Bulletin of Latin American Research, 30(4), 403–418.
  2. Forsberg, K. (2017, May). Engaging Youth to Conserve Coastal and Marine Environments | UN Chronicle. Retrieved from
  3. Gordon, T., & Webber, J. R. (2008). Imperialism and Resistance: Canadian mining companies in Latin America. Third World Quarterly, 29(1), 63–87.
  4. Heemskerk, M. (2003). Risk attitudes and mitigation among gold miners and others in the Suriname rainforest. Natural Resources Forum,27(4), 267–278.
  5.  “Principles of Community Engagement: Concepts and Definitions from the Literature and Wong, N. T., Zimmerman, M. A., & Parker, E. A. (2010). A typology of youth participation and empowerment for child and adolescent health promotion. American Journal of Community Psychology, 46, 100–114.)

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